The Who’s Tommy: A Complex Portrait of Disability

In 1969 The Who broke new ground with its landmark recording Tommy, the first album to be labeled a “rock opera.” Musically, it was immediately hailed as a success. But the album’s storyline confused some listeners. It involved a boy named Tommy Walker, who loses his ability to hear, speak, and see; undergoes a spiritual rebirth; recovers his senses; and consequently gains messianic status. The lyrics left some fans amazed, some baffled, and some outright angry. Because Pete Townshend’s story, like much prose and poetry, is open to interpretation, some view it as deplorable in its treatment of disabled people, while others may deem it praiseworthy. Therein lies the complexity of Tommy: while Townshend tries to overthrow traditional portrayals of disabled people by giving Tommy Walker a heightened status, he also employs the very stereotypes that he tries to extinguish.

Townshend makes clear his reasons for choosing an autistic boy as the hero of his rock opera, but his justification may actually perpetuate the disablist tenor that underlies Tommy. In the CD liner notes to the 1996 digitally remastered version, Townshend explains, “âÂ?¦the hero had to be deaf, dumb and blind so that seen from our already limited point of view, his limitations would be symbolic of our own.” Townshend uses Tommy’s disability as a metaphor for our own spiritual impotence. Tommy’s subsequent recuperation, then, provides proof that we can transcend our limited corporeal mentality and experience an infinite metaphysical reality. But by doing this, Townshend essentially pigeonholes those with disabilities as incompetent, as having limitations that are universally recognized. If so-called “able” people are supposed to relate with Tommy to recognize their own spiritual faults, with whom should the disabled listener relate? Townshend’s argument is flawed because it classifies the disabled as those with whom “ordinary” people should relate their faults.

Although Tommy was not intended to perpetuate certain stereotypes or exploit disabilities, some people, contrary to Townshend’s intentions, clearly interpreted it negatively. Shortly after the album’s release, Tony Blackburn of BBC Radio “considered the use of such a character to be sensationalistic and in very bad taste.” As a result, “Townshend, anxious that his motives in utilizing a disabled character weren’t misunderstood, sent a press release to various influential people in London” to explain his purpose (Atkins, 2000, p.115). Still, when composing any type of art, one must be careful not to reinforce stereotypes that have afflicted society for so long. According to Rosemarie Thomson, “âÂ?¦disability is a representation, a cultural interpretation of physical transformation or configuration, and a comparison of bodies that structures social relations and institutions.” In addition, she asserts that representations in cultural products help to structure reality, contributing to how people perceive those who do not embody the “normate” (Thomson, 1997, p. 6). Because characters in musical performances have an impact on how people view the world-or, in this case, how they view those with disabilities-Townshend’s reinforcement of certain stereotypes could have a negative effect on social attitudes.

Throughout the album, when other characters speak of Tommy in the third person, they often refer to him simply as “the boy” or, worse yet, the “deaf, dumb and blind boy,” which strips Tommy of his individual identity. In fact, one of the original titles for Tommy was Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy (Atkins, 2000). This third-person anonymity is most evident in the song “Pinball Wizard,” which states, “That deaf, dumb and blind kid/Sure plays a mean pinball.” Here, Tommy is labeled as his disability. The other character (the Local Lad) does not describe him using his proper name; he simply speaks of his disability. Notice that the boy who relinquishes his pinball crown to Tommy is simply called the “Local Lad,” not the “Local Lad with Acne and a Big Nose;” he is not identified by his characteristics. This track exemplifies Thomson’s claim that “categories of cultural otherness thus reduce individuals to a particular identifying traits, rendering a multifaceted individualâÂ?¦one of the ‘disabled'” (1997, p. 34). Also, Tommy’s parents almost always call him “the boy,” further contributing to his loss of identity, at least while he is disabled.

While I have already posited that Townshend is guilty of employing an array of disability stereotypes to support his narrative, I think that some of these warrant special attention. In his book Everybody Belongs, Arthur Shapiro (1999) contends that some people prejudicially believe that blind people can develop a sixth sense; Tommy clearly works to perpetuate this stereotype. In “Pinball Wizard,” undoubtedly the most popular and best-known song on the album, Townshend writes that Tommy “plays by intuition” because he lacks the ability to see or hear. Such lyrics lead the listeners to believe that Tommy has a special ability, perhaps a supernatural ability, that other human’s lack; these lyrics also help form misconceptions about blind people. Similarly, Rose and Kiger (1995) state some common stereotypes about deaf people, among which are immaturity and inability to reason. The description of Tommy in the song “Christmas” leads me to believe that Townshend also subscribes to these stereotypes. Townshend sings, “Playing proxy pinball/[Tommy] picks his nose and smiles and/pokes his tongue at everything.” These lyrics portray Tommy as infantile, not as someone who is deaf and blind. In the rock opera, Townshend also relies on the assumption that disabled people are miserable, that they want nothing more than to be cured and become “normal.” This attitude is evident in “There’s a Doctor,” in which Tommy’s father cries, “There’s a man I’ve found/Could bring us all joy!/There’s a doctor I’ve found/Could cure the boy!âÂ?¦There’s a man I’ve found/Could remove his sorrow.” Some do not realize that not everyone with disability strives to become “normal,” and not everyone with a disability is in the constant state of depression these lyrics suggest.

Interestingly enough, we never see Tommy in everyday situations. Once he sheds his autistic persona, Tommy is elevated to the role of demigod or prophet, a Christ-like figure. He has descended to hell (his autistic state, brought about by a traumatic childhood experience, the witness of a murder), he has ascended to heaven (his spiritual awakening that occurred when, through sensory shut-down, he rejected the physical world), and he has risen to preach his story to his loyal followers that begin to congregate during the latter half of the album. Although it is unusual to see main characters with disabilities (Thomson, 1997), it is even more unusual to see disabled characters acting in ordinary, daily activities. Because it is easy for the public to consider an extraordinary disabled character rather than an average one, Townshend opted to follow the route most often chosen.

Despite Tommy’s obvious shortcomings in its depiction of a disabled main character, there are some positive aspects to Townshend’s portrayal of Tommy. While Tommy remains disabled throughout the first half of the record, Townshend depicts an inner dialogue that occurs in Tommy’s head during his autistic period; he gives Tommy a voice. John Atkins (2000) explains:

Throughout the work, it is emphasized that the spiritual world is much more tangible, life-enhancing and important than the organic world, so Tommy’s sensory deprivation is a disability only in terms of the physical world, which superficially pities himâÂ?¦abuses him mentally and physicallyâÂ?¦and exploits him both sexuallyâÂ?¦and commerciallyâÂ?¦ (p. 123).

In this way, Tommy’s disability is a very positive aspect in his life, a sanctuary in which he experiences spiritual and cognitive development. Tommy’s brain remains active and receptive while his senses are impaired. Townshend seems to recognize the discrimination and inhumane treatment to which many disabled people are oftentimes exposed and offers Tommy an escape.

In addition, Tommy helps to increase people’s awareness to horrific situations that some disabled children have to live with. Perhaps the most disturbing of these is the episode in which Tommy’s Uncle Ernie sexually molests him due to Tommy’s parents’ neglect. Similarly, his cousin physically and mentally abuses him when they are left alone to play. Cousin Kevin says, “I’m the school bully!/The classroom cheat/The nastiest playfriend/you ever could meet,” and proceeds to list various ways he could torture Tommy. With these two songs, Townshend raises two important and unfortunate issues that children with disabilities must sometimes face. Such behavior is most often found in school settings, where certain students often make fun of others with disabilities; sometimes such mocking turns to violence. Teachers and parents must be aware that such episodes do exist and work to prevent them from occurring.

Clearly, Townshend’s Tommy paints a complicated portrait of disability. His stereotyping and exploitation of a disabled person might offend and anger some, but Townshend does give Tommy Walker a voice, an identity, and a complex personality. Moreover, Tommy undergoes character development as the rock opera progresses. He is not merely a foil to another character or hero; he is the hero. At the end, Tommy announces to his loyal minions, “My name is Tommy/And I became aware this year./If you want to follow me/You’ve got to play pinball./And put in your earplugs/Put on you eye shades/You know where to put the cork!” Like the rest of the album, the ending is open to interpretation: its use of disability (or, in this case, feigned disability) to convey a grander metaphysical awaking can be seen as positive or negative.

REFERENCES

Townshend, P. (1969). Tommy [CD]. MCA Records.

Kiger, G. & Rose, P. (1995). Intergroup relations: Political action and identity in the deaf community. Disability and Society, 10(4), 521-528.

Shapiro, A. (1999). Everybody belongs: Changing negative attitudes toward classmates with disabilities. New York: Routledge/Falmer.

Atkins, J. (2000). The Who on record: A critical history, 1963-1998. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Thomson, R.G. (1997). Extraordinary bodies: Figuring disability in American culture and literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

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